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Burgundy Musing Born of a Mild Tetchiness

Typical bit of neat burgundian dry stone walling

So what makes a Burgundy vintage good? Is it simply a matter of lots of sunshine and a little bit of rain? Which are the best vintages of the last decade or so? What do we look for in the best red burgundy?

As ever, this is a region that presents more questions than it does answers. And many of those questions - as with those above - are inter-related.

What makes a Burgundy vintage a good one is, it seems to me, unclear. Of course, one needs the fruit to be ripe, but with Pinot Noir being such a thin-skinned variety, one doesn't need extended periods of sunshine and warmth (as one does, for example, in the Médoc) to bring the skins up to full maturity. What one does require is an alcohol level of at least 12.5% abv; for some reason Pinot doesn't work with less.

The key to Pinot Noir and its greatness is, of course, terroir: that expression of place; a translation of the language of a specific, tiny piece of Planet Earth by the fermentation of grapes grown thereon/in into particular characteristics identifiable to nose and palate of man. Ripe Pinot Noir, to be utterly frank, is not enough.

What becomes clear when one visits the region is that one is often presented with vintages that are either Pinot Noir harvests or terroir harvests. Take 1999, for example. The vintage was lauded on release and ever since and its wines will continue to give pleasure for many years to come. Yet it is first and foremost a Pinot Noir vintage i.e. there's lots of very beautiful Pinot Noir fruit, but insufficient demarcation from one village to the next.

Should that be seen as a problem? Well, I have come to assume that those who buy red burgundy are really serious about collecting wine. It is, after all, a subject difficult to "get one's head 'round". Extrapolating from there, I further assume that the Holy Grail for those who regularly buy red burgundy is the stamp of terroir and not simply ripe fruit.

So, again, what are the best vintages of the last decade or so? I would proffer that those who want the true taste of the finest Pinot Noir soils (or, more precisely, sub-soils) in their burgundy should look at those vintages generally considered to be "off". 1998, 2001, 2004, 2008 have all produced wines that reek of their origins. These are, naturally, vintages that were far from being universally successful. Indeed, I would say that the consumer entering a wine shop and picking a bottle of 2004 red burgundy randomly from the shelf had better prepare themselves for something of a meagre experience, as many of the wines are green, dirty or unpleasant. But source the best of them and one finds appetising wines of great character; wines that make one want to call for a) something toothsome to eat and b) another glass. Not massive wines these, rather they are subtle, elegant, crisp, aromatic. And aren't all those words one associates with the finest burgundy?

And this, of course, is where Bowes Wine comes in. Untied to a wine list that shackles us to the same producers year on year, we can zip about and find the core of interest in any given vintage. In other words, stick with us, you'll be okay!

Incidentally, I removed from Octavian the other day my case of 2004 Marsannay Longeroies from Bruno Clair that appeared on our offering of the wines of this much derided vintage. If anything, it's a bit on the young side, but is wonderfully pure, crisp and delicious, whilst remaining very, very Marsannay. I cannot imagine any other vintage of this wine presenting one with more pleasure than this. Bigger, more alcoholic, more tannic maybe. But lacking something this most certainly is not!
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